Early, Non-Marital Childbearing and the "Culture of Despair"

Melissa S. Kearney, University of Maryland
Phillip Levine, Wellesley College

This paper borrows from other social sciences in considering the impact that “culture” (broadly defined as the economic and social environment in which the poor live) plays in determining early, non-marital childbearing. We reinterpret the ethnographic literature that emphasizes the role of hopelessness into an economic model that captures the concept of “despair” with an individual’s perception of economic success. We further propose that this perception is based in part on the level of income inequality where a woman lives. Using individual-level data from the United States and a number of other developed countries, we find that low SES women are more likely to have early, non-marital births when they live in higher inequality locations, all else equal. We calculate that differences in the level of inequality can explain a sizeable share of the geographic variation in teen fertility rates both across U.S. states and across developed countries.

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Presented in Session 142: Comparative Perspectives on Fertility and Sexual Behavior